Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

Today I had to withdraw a cherry drying contract from a pilot who wanted to fly for me because he insisted on being allowed to have a “pilot friend” fly with him during cherry drying missions.

Because more than half of the cherry drying crashes in this area have occurred with two people in the cockpit, this is something I simply don’t allow — and I specifically forbid it in the contact terms.

Why Just One Pilot?

I blogged about this back in June 2012. There had been a crash with a fatality just a few days before. Two pilots had been on board, although the dual controls were reportedly not installed. The aircraft hit wires and crashed into the trees. The passenger was killed; the pilot sustained serious injuries. In my blog post, I raised the question of cockpit distractions.

The previous July (2011), there had been three crashes during cherry drying work. Of the three, two of them occurred with two people on board.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Although performance might not be an issue in an R44 — which the guys who work for me fly — in these flying conditions, distractions can be. Cherry drying is done in an obstacle rich environment just a few feet over the tops of trees.

Cherry Drying Near Wires
Wires and poles and trees, oh my!

So many pilots whine about the danger of flying in “the deadman’s curve.” That’s not my concern when I’m hovering with my skids brushing the treetops. My concern is wires and wind machines and bird houses on poles and tall trees bordering the orchard. I’ve struck a pine tree branch with my main rotor blade and trimmed a treetop with my tail rotor. That’s how close I can get — which is obviously too close — to obstacles that could easy damage my aircraft enough to bring it down into the trees.

Now imagine having a chatty friend on board. Or the dual controls installed and someone “following along” with you on an instructional flight. Is this a good idea when you need to keep focused?

I don’t think so. I think it’s dangerous and I won’t allow it.

Training

The argument I hear most often about why two pilots should be allowed to fly cherry drying missions is training. How can a new pilot learn the ropes unless he experiences the flight?

Easy: teach him on a nice clear day, when weather is not an issue and there isn’t an orchard owner on the ground freaking out because he’s worried about losing his cherry crop. A day when there’s no stress and no demands to get the job done quickly and move on to the next orchard. A day when rain isn’t making the cockpit bubble nearly impossible to see through and you have to worry about the flight path of the other helicopter on the next orchard block.

Start with an overview at an obstruction-free orchard and show how you scout for obstacles in a new orchard and determine where to start work. Descend slowly and start your instructional passes high, showing the student how the downwash affects the trees. Work your way down to the point where the future cherry drying pilot should be flying.

Of course, you’re doing all this after some ground training where you’ve already sketched out how the job is done and discussed all aspects of the work.

This is how I learned to dry cherries. I spent 2 hours talking about the work with an experienced cherry drying pilot and some notepaper that we sketched all over. Then we flew for about an hour over some uniformly tall trees and practiced various maneuvers.

And this is how I teach new pilots to dry cherries. In a controlled, stress-free environment.

So the argument that having a pilot on board during an actual cherry drying mission is the only way to teach him simply doesn’t fly with me. (Okay, pun intended.)

Is This a Contract Killer?

Is the one person vs. two people on board argument worth preventing a contract agreement? Apparently, the pilot I withdrew the contract from and I think it is.

In his words, “If this is not possible I don’t see this working for my business.” That makes me wonder about his “pilot friend.”

It seems to me that a friend should understand that when you have work to do, he needs to stand aside and let you do it. I have friends who fly fire contracts and power line contracts and heavy lift contracts and spray contracts. I am one of their “pilot friends.” I’d love to experience one of these flights first hand. But I know that (1) their employers most likely prohibit fly-alongs for pretty much the same reason I do and (2) my presence could jeopardize our safety or their job. So I don’t even ask and they don’t offer.

The claim that having only one person on board won’t work for his business makes me wonder whether there’s some financial gain to be had from having that second pilot on board. Would that other pilot be paying for that flight time, perhaps as a student? In that case, it’s “double-dipping,” pure and simple — being paid by two separate parties for work on one mission. And frankly, there’s a bit too much of that in this industry for my taste.

I pay a generous per-hour flight rate for cherry drying work. The rate is considerably higher than any charter or utility rate a pilot could charge for flying the same helicopter. I pay that because the work is risky and because that’s what the market will bear. Isn’t this enough to head off any need for double-dipping?

As for me, I want my pilots safe and their flights accident-free. I can’t serve my clients when one of my pilots crashes in an orchard and his helicopter is put out of commission. It’s my goal to minimize the risk — that’s why I require pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time and at least 100 hours in the helicopter they’re flying. That’s why I don’t allow two people in the cockpit when flying in an obstacle-rich environment.

It’s not all about money and milking the system to maximize revenue. It’s about the safe and reliable performance of a mission to best serve clients — and live to fly another day.

15 thoughts on “Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

  1. I’m a non-pilot, but I do have some hours in a hot air balloon as a pilot in training and a crew chief. Those beasties by their very nature are in an obstacle rich environment throughout much of their flight time.

    I can’t help but wholeheartedly appreciate your stance on this issue.

    • Too many people just don’t take this work seriously. This is my biggest season yet — I’m hiring four pilots to work with me. If any one of them crashes — even if he isn’t injured — that’s one less helicopter on line to get the work done. So not only is this a safety decision, but it’s a business decision.

  2. Single pilot, 500 hours, bring your own ship, stress free training, ground to air comms….I think it is stuff like this that really sets you apart. I was offered a contract this season and was going to take it for the experience so I could try and fly for you next season. I decided to turn it down because the operator was very hard to get information from I like strong communicators.

    Thank you also for being willing to share your experiences. Your blog also factored in my decision to wait another year until I have more time in type because I honestly don’t think my reflexes are quick enough low level in the 44 at this point.

    Side note: I have/love that you charge for access to premium content on your site. I am used to everything being free online and love it that way. Thank you for standing up for yourself and being comfortable saying that your service is worth paying for. I think I can handle $.50! I’ve said it before, if you write a helicopter book, I’ll buy the first copy, even if it’s just old blog posts.

    Happy Flying

    • Thanks so much for your support. It’s folks like you — and nice comments like this — that keep me writing. The 50¢ is just a way to collect a few dollars to pay the site’s bills.

  3. I think you’re spot on requiring that your subcontractors fly single-pilot for this kind of job. The only conceivable reason someone “couldn’t make it work” with a single pilot only clause is that they are planning on charging some student/’sucker “discount instructional hours” while they are flying your contract. Not only is this a safety issue, it’s a gross disservice to the sucker/student as well, as the so-called “training” involved is minimal at best. If the guy wants to subsidize the cross-country relocation flight portion of the work by taking along a student pilot and acting as CFI along the way, no problem. Expecting some poor schmuck to pay for the “privilege” of riding along while he dries cherries (on your contract) is another matter entirely. Zero benefit to the “student”, while adding unnecessary risk and distraction in a critical phase of flight.

    • I agree. But there’s a subset of owner/operators — many of whom own small flight training operations, too — who play this revenue game. During a recent conversation with an FAA inspector I realized that this hasn’t gone unnoticed. I really wish operators would start taking this work seriously. I need good, reliable pilots — not warm bodies hovering in the vicinity of wet cherries when they manage to find the orchard. I hired four pilots to help me this year and only one of them is known. I can’t tell you how nervous I am about the other three.

  4. The landscape around the orchards looks pretty arid to me, so I am assuming the trees are watered by pumped irrigation?
    If rain is as rare as it looks from the landscape, then I imagine that you are paid by the orchard owners for ‘being available’ rather than by time over their trees.
    Is that how the drying contracts work?
    If it is just payment for ‘time in the sky’ then it seems a rather precarious business model?

    • Yes, this is desert here. Without irrigation, the land is mostly sagebrush and bunch grass. Most of the water comes from the Columbia River, irrigation canals, and reservoirs. Some of it comes from wells.

      We get, on average, about one rain event per week during the season. That doesn’t mean one every week, though. We could get two this week and none for the next three weeks. We’re paid a daily amount for standby and then additional money when we fly. Without the standby, the hourly rate would have to be three or four times as high to assure profitability. Even then, most owner/operators wouldn’t do it because of the uncertainty. I’ve been on contract for about 2 weeks now and have only logged 2.1 hours of flight time. I have 9 weeks left in my contracts.

      • Thanks Maria, for that explanation of how the contracts work in the cherry-drying season.
        So once the rain front has moved through, the air is thick with helicopters?
        Guess you need a dedicated Heli-cherry frequency when it gets manic. Do you helicopter pilots all know each other and watch each other’s backs?
        The local aerodrome frequency would be swamped.

        In the UK we use 135.475 as a common contact in this sort of scenario.

        • If the rain is widespread, then yes, the air is thick with helicopters. Otherwise, just scattered. Some of us know each other and chat a bit when we see each other flying. Other pilots are real jerks who do obnoxious things like flying over the top of you while you’re working. The rest stay pretty quiet. Not much on the radio; we each have “company frequencies.”

          • Yikes! An unexpected down-draught that close to the tree-tops would be hard to deal with.
            The sort of low and slow flying you do over the cherries must also burn off the fuel very rapidly. Do you refuel by ordering a bowser to come to the orchard you are working, or do you return to a nearby field to join an orderly queue?

            • I don’t usually get downdrafts. Most of the time I’m flying over cherries, any storms have passed.

              And I actually get better fuel economy while drying. Sure, I’m hovering below ETL, which is the highest power consumption. But at the same time, I’m the only one on board so I’m using a very low power setting. I can get 3-1/2 hours on full tanks.

What do you think?